Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Are the Movement's Organizations Open to the Movement's Members? A Study of Democratic Practices in Women's Groups in Quebec

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Are the Movement's Organizations Open to the Movement's Members? A Study of Democratic Practices in Women's Groups in Quebec

Article excerpt

This article looks at the processes of participation of women's groups in Quebec, for both board/staff and clients, and asks in what ways accessibility, representivity and accountability are applied and achieved. The authors focus on the women who use an organization's services and their inclusion in decision-making practices.

In the past thirty years, women's groups in North America have multiplied and developed a tremendous variety of organizational forms. However, within this complex array of structures, little attention has been given to the question of democracy in terms of the place and power of those women who participate in the group's activities or use its services. Despite the attention in the literature given to values of collectivist structures and democratic processes, concretely, feminist practices of small sororial collectives, composed of staff and activists, often supercede practices of open, democratic structures for members. This development is problematic for the women's movement as a whole because, if women's organizations have become the backbone of the women's movement, what do these trends indicate about the accessibility, representivity and accountability of the movement in general?

The aim of this article is to raise the question of the place of the users/participants/members of women's groups in the democratic structures of their groups. The terminology is somewhat tricky because women who use a group's services are not necessarily members of that group. Our focus is on the women who participate in the groups' activities or who use the groups' services and their relationship to the decision-making structures of the groups. Who ultimately makes the decisions with regard to the group's orientation and action? Do women other than the staff control the group? What women? What do the power relations within the group between staff and participants look like? This article is based on case studies of ten women's groups in Quebec, which were carried out between 1995 and 1998 and which were designed to examine the organizational culture of women's groups in Quebec.(1) In this article, we will look first at how the question of democracy and women's organizations is treated in both the English North American feminist literature and the French Quebec literature. We will then briefly describe the major characteristics of each group in our study and focus on their democratic practices with particular regard to their user-participants or members. From this examination we will be able to draw certain conclusions about the principles held by some of the groups that are fundamental to democratic control of women's groups by their members.

Studies on Organizational Practices in Women's Groups

Organizational practices including democratic practices in women's groups have generally been analyzed from the point of view of the "service producers," that is employed staff and sometimes volunteer activists. No matter what their theoretical framework -- resource mobilization theory, social movement theory or organizational theory -- the majority of North American writings on this subject analyze women's organizations from this viewpoint. Many of them address the question of collectivist versus bureaucratic organizations (Ahrens, 1980; Ferguson, 1984; Riger, 1984; Rodriguez, 1988; Rothschild-Whitt, 1979a, 1979b). Others look at the difference between hierarchical and participatory structures (Acker, 1995; Ahrens, 1980; Freeman, 1972; Iannello, 1992; Pennell, 1989; Rodriguez, 1988; Whittier, 1995). However their analyses are based on an understanding that the women affected by these questions, the "members" of the organization, are the employees and certain volunteers, namely the board members.

Indeed, in most of the literature on the organizational practices in women's groups, no clear distinction appears to be made between self-management (worker control), joint management between board and staff, and management by the rank and file, that is, where a board composed largely of participant members and elected at a members' assembly have decision-making power concerning important aspects of the group. …

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